USA / United Kingdom—Dir. Alfonso Cuarón
It’s not very often that you find yourself tearing up behind your 3D glasses at a movie - unless it’s in sheer despair at the lameness of the effects-laden gimmickry that’s unspooling before you. But in Gravity, his first film since 2006’s Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón succeeds in crafting a sci-fi extravaganza that’s as richly emotional as it is visually dazzling. Setting Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts adrift in space, and challenging them to make it back home under the most difficult circumstances possible, Cuarón’s movie is heart-pumping mainstream cinema infused with a healthy dose of existentialism.
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris—not to mention the latter’s Clooney-starring remake—are the obvious reference points for aspects of the movie. But the clever Cuarón goes beyond them to create something that’s vibrant and distinctive in its own right. A two-hander that becomes a monologue, reverts to being a two-hander and then ... (well, that would be telling) the film suggests what might have been the result if Samuel Beckett and James Cameron had decided to team up on a project.
A skillful script by Cuarón and his son Jonas helps. As does a terrifically atmospheric sound design by Steven Price. And the visuals are beyond praise: cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates images that are at once dreamy, nightmarish and hyper-real. The use of 3D is vital and expressive here, sending the protagonists hurtling and twirling, colliding and gliding through space, in a thrilling ballet that puts us right there with them.
Clooney’s role, it must be said, is really little more than a series of quips and flirtatious gestures, albeit delivered with aplomb. Rather, it’s a thoroughly cast-against-type Bullock who takes over as the movie’s hero and, playing a woman numbed by grief who has to call on resources she didn’t know she had, the actress delivers her most delicately nuanced and affecting screen performance to date. (And, yeah, that certainly includes her bizarrely Oscar-honored turn in the egregious The Blind Side.) She’s awesome here, the human centre of the most intimately-scaled epic you can imagine, a sci-fi film that’s destined to captivate even the sci-fi averse.
United Kingdom—Dir. Roger Michell
Roger Michell’s modest comedy-drama Le Week-End—which concerns an aging British couple’s trip to Paris to celebrate their 30th anniversary—wouldn’t appear to have an awful lot in common with Gravity. But Michell’s movie is essentially a two-hander too, and one that similarly presents a male and female protagonist out of their element. The City of Light might be a more enticing destination than deep space, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the carping and bickering that Jim Broadbent’s Nick and Lindsay Duncan’s Meg get up to during their stay there. Things are fraught from the off - when Meg disdains the accommodation that Nick’s booked them into and insists on moving to a more palatial hotel. But that’s only the beginning for a visit that finds the pair assessing their life choices and contemplating the direction they’re going in—and, indeed, the future of their marriage itself.
Alas, after a relatively promising start, Le Week-End proves to be a fairly charmless exercise, one that’s neither funny nor dramatic enough to sustain interest. Working once again from a script by Hanif Kurieshi (with whom he previously collaborated on The Mother, Venus (2007) and TV’s The Buddha of Suburbia) Michell tries to inject a little New Wave looseness, spirit and dash into the proceedings—in merry mood, Nick and Meg sprint through the streets or indulge in a Bande à part-inspired bop as Jeremy Sams’ jazz score tinkles away derivatively. We’re meant to find the couple’s cheeky antics—such as leaving a restaurant without paying (ho, ho)—adorable but they just come off as silly. And while it could be pleasing to see a British movie gesturing towards French cinema for once, the meagre references that Michell has inserted feel entirely superficial, and only serve to highlight the conservatism of the director’s own filmmaking practice.
The movie’s focus on an aging couple, not to mention Broadbent’s presence as one half of that couple, position Le Week-End as a companion piece of sorts to Mike Leigh’s Another Year. Where the bliss of Leigh’s pair seemed only to be threatened by the disruptive intrusions of their sadly single friends, Kurieshi locates Nick and Meg’s malaise firmly within the characters and their own thwarted hopes and expectations. That should, by rights, result in more compelling drama, but Le Week-End ultimately strikes even more false notes than Another Year did. Too many scenes become tedious rounds of bitching and bickering, and, as often, Kureishi makes his characters endlessly, boringly eloquent about what’s ailing them. Nick and Meg’s emotional blow-ups are shrill arias of blame and regret—with accusations of frigidity and spinelessness flying fast—and they feel too rehearsed to involve us deeply.
The performances are variable too. Jeff Goldblum is quite dreadful as a University chum of Nick’s who the couple bump into, and who gets the wrong impression of his old friend’s life. Broadbent has some fresh moments, though a despairing, drunken slur through “Like a Rolling Stone” certainly isn’t one of them. The best work comes from Duncan—an actress too rarely seen on the cinema screen—whose dry delivery and emotional acuity succeed in making some of Meg’s moves from exuberance to despondency halfway credible. Notwithstanding, Michell’s movie isn’t a trip to go out of your way to take.